Thursday, 27 February 2014

Progress Report: Toronto Maple Leafs

With the Olympic break ending for the Leafs this evening as they face the New York Islanders, now seems like a good time to evaluate how the team has been doing this season.


A number of similar articles appeared at the start of the break. Many drew on stats to make conclusions about the team's "unsustainably high" this, "unbelievably lucky" that, and other chart-based blather. In contrast, I will be reviewing the benchmarks that I outlined last summer.

Ending losing streaks

At the beginning of this season, the Leafs had three losing streaks that had or were about to hit the 10-year mark. Toronto had not beaten the Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, or Phoenix Coyotes since 2003. During that time, the Leafs had gone 0-6-1, 0-9-1, and 0-5-1 against those teams respectively.

Although none of these teams is a true rival of the blue-and-white, the lopsided losses since '03 have made beating each club a benchmark to assess if the team is back in contention. So, how have the 2013-14 Leafs fared against their foul-weather enemies?

1. Blackhawks Lay an Egg

In the first meeting of the year, Dave Bolland's former club beat the Leafs 3-1. This October game helped to set the precedent for the Leafs being wildly outshot in games. The Blackhawks fired 40 shots at Jonathan Bernier while the Leafs mustered a mere 20 at Corey Crawford. Despite that differential, the Leafs managed to hang in the game.

The next meeting would not be nearly as close. The Leafs beat the Blackhawks 7-3, notching one goal for each game lost to Chicago since 2003. Seriously, they scored seven goals for seven losses. The team could not have scripted a better win (except by preventing the 'Hawks from scoring at all that night).

Toronto not only outscored but outshot the reigning Stanley Cup Champions (32-28), which made this triumph a source of optimism for the stats crowd and intangibles junkies alike.

2. Van-snoozer Canucks

Toronto's games against Vancouver this season were tales of two teams caught snoozing.

When the teams first clashed in November, the lifeless Leafs fired 21 fruitless shots while the Canucks tallied 4 goals on 47 shots--one shot for every year that's passed since the Leafs last hoisted the Stanley cup.

When I was a kid in Toronto in the 90s, we used to see this flyers everywhere.

In the second meeting, the Leafs caught the Canucks snoozing. After leading 1-0 after two periods, the Canucks apparently decided to start the Olympic break early by letting the Leafs score 3 third-period goals. There was no significance behind the goals scored or shot totals in this game, but the Leafs did manage to had the Canucks their 7th straight loss. And making Burrows et al. miserable is just as satisfying as firing one shot for every year since the Canucks began their decades-long tradition of never winning the Cup. 

Oh, and Tyler "Why Does Everyone Gotta Hate Me" Bozak disproved his detractors further infuriated his detractors by notching his 100th career assist on Phil Kessel's game-winning-goal. So the win was also a victory for members of Leafs Nation who love to argue among themselves.

3. Ending the Decade of Drought

The Leafs beat the Coyotes in December and January, but the latter was the greater accomplishment because it signaled an end to Toronto's offensive woes in Arizona. Phoenix not only beat Toronto in a decade's worth of games; they also outscored the Leafs 29-13 over those years. That's an average of nearly 5 goals-per-game to an average of just over 2 GPG.

This year, the Leafs turned the tide by preventing the Coyotes from scoring more than 2 goals in each game. Moreover, they doubled their average since 2003 by notching 4 goals in the second match up.

I don't have any material for chirping the Coyotes, so I've just pasted Shane Doan's face on Madonna from Evita. 


"Doan cry for me, Arizona."

Moving Ahead

If nothing else, the accomplishments listed above prove that the Leafs will win the Cup this spring.

Just kidding--the team is not yet a true Stanley Cup contender, but it is well on its way to regaining respectability. Not only have they ended streaks of futility against specific teams, but they've also overcome their struggles in the shootout. Last year, the SO was an exercise in humility, but it has become a source of strength this year.

Still, the real streak that the Leafs need to keep in their crosshairs is the club's Cup drought, which is nearing the half-century mark. While the current corps hasn't convinced me that they can win a championship, they have made that goal seem more like a matter of "when" than "if."

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Greatest Day in Canada's Olympic History?

Ice Hockey Engenders Inconstancy

Is any game as fraught with hypocrisy? I'm not referring to the game itself but the fans who often denounce an occurrence in a game as offensive to God and humankind, and then valourize that same thing mere moments later.

At one point during today's gold-medal game between the Canadian and American women's hockey teams, I was screaming at the refs for calling a penalty in overtime. Less than a minute later, I was praising the officials for doing the exact same thing (except that the call benefited my team).

Prior to the game-winning goal, I was cursing the ref for not giving Canada a penalty shot after Hilary Knight hauled Hayley Wickenheiser down as she was breaking for the American crease on a clear breakaway. How foolish my outrage seemed once Marie-Philip Poulin netted the game-winning-goal on the power play that was awarded to Canada in lieu of the penalty shot.

Indeed, how foolish was I to bemoan Canada's inability to capitalize on the power play in regulation. Canada failed to score on six consecutive power plays, but all that was forgiven when the team clinched gold on the seventh opportunity.

Similar to the inner-conflict felt by fans during the game, the on-ice opponents had to battle each other as well as questionable calls from the officials. Indeed, a linesman's poor positioning during a play would have ended the game for Canada had it not been for the heroic efforts of a valiant post.

The goal post should be awarded the Order of Canada. (source)

And yet, once those same officials quashed assaults on Canada's defensive zone because the play was offside, I suddenly forgot the enmity that I had developed for the whistle-wielding zebras.

Other Afterthoughts

This game may have been the best match that I have ever seen, and I would've said that even if we had lost. Of course, the experience was immeasurably better given the outcome.

Nevertheless, both teams should be commended for their play today.

There isn't much that I can say about the game because the re-play speaks for itself in justifying why the game was such a triumph for the sport. Instead of discussing the actual event, I'll just offer some afterthoughts.

Canada's Jubilant Juggernauts

Canada's comeback against the Americans somewhat eclipsed the fact that they went undefeated in Sochi. How fortunate that they won gold as an undefeated team on the same day that the women's curling team did the exact same thing.

This coincidence makes me wonder if Canada has pushed ahead of other countries in terms of developing female athletes. Of Canada's seven gold medals, five have been won by female and two have been won by male Olympians. Canada may not own the podium in 2014, but its successes nonetheless make the country look rather progressive when it comes to demolishing gender barriers in sport.

Heckling the IOC in Hindsight

While on the topic of female athletes, here's one observation that occurred to me as my friends of Facebook and Twitter spent the day commenting on every development in the hockey game. How ridiculous does the International Olympic Committee look right now for having seriously considered cutting women's hockey after the 2010 Olympics?

Now that notion sounds like the mad ramblings of "the girl you wish you hadn't started a conversation with at a party."

Sure, there may only be two real contenders among nations right now, but the two hockey superpowers are putting on an absolutely stunning show for audiences. That sort of exposure is exactly how the IOC needs to entice other countries into investing more in this burgeoning event.

Vetter Luck Next Time?

And speaking of wronged athletes, I was disappointed to see many American fans (including one goaltending prospect for a prominent Toronto-based NHL team) hang the loss on Team USA goaltender Jessie Vetter. The American goalie had no chance on the game-winning-goal, but she did single-glovedly keep the Canadians at bay for more than 50 minutes in the game. Don't let a disappointing loss tarnish the way that Vetter played today or in the past.

Vetter has taken the American women's team to the gold-medal game at the Winter Olympics twice now. If a goalie can do that twice, the problems finishing the job probably have more to do with the team's skaters. That certainly was the case back in 2010, when the Americans were shutout 2-0 by Canada. In that situation, it doesn't matter how many saves Vetter makes: the team in front of her has to score at least once goal or else the game is lost.

This year, Vetter became something of a scourge for Canada, which lost four straight games to the US prior to the 2014 Olympics. It seemed like Vetter was primed to avenge the the loss in 2010 by shutting out the Canadians 2-0 in Sochi. Even though Poulin et al. prevailed at the eleventh hour, Vetter's play nevertheless caused Canadian hearts to quake in fear that the hockey gods were exacting retribution on the team.

That said, let's not overlook today's outcome. To dispel gloomy thoughts of what could have been, feast your eyes on the golden goal of 2014:

This'll be my new pick-me-up gif. (source)

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Women's Hockey: from lying in the IOC's ICU to saying "I'll See You in South Korea!"

I'll get to the good news after a bit of gloating.

The Canadian women's hockey team beat Switzerland yesterday, but Switzerland helped me win Twitter today.

Okay, maybe I didn't outdo the rest of the world on social media today, but I did wake up to a pleasant notification this morning. I was tweeting furiously during yesterday's game between Canada and Switzerland, and Swiss goaltending phenomenon Florence Schelling favourited a couple of my remarks.


I'm going to interpret the first fave as an endorsement of "gleeful taunt" as the epithet to use whenever discussing Schelling's trademark grin.

The second tweet will be a subject for a later blog that will propose one way in which women's hockey could build on the momentum gathered from Sochi. While some commentators still insist that women's hockey is going nowhere slowly, most people who watched yesterday's game would say that the scoreboard didn't reflect how competitive the game actually was. Schelling gave Canada a scare by keeping Switzerland in the game right until the final horn sounded. 

Luckily for fans, IIHF President Rene Fasel shares the more positive view of the event's progress. In a press conference held earlier today, Fasel dispelled the gloom cast over women's hockey ever since former IOC President Jacques Rogge threatened to cancel it following the 2010 Olympics.

Fasel, who also serves as an executive member in the IOC, offered hope for the future of women's hockey by categorically denying that the sport will lose its Olympic status. "It will never happen," said Fasel in a surprisingly unequivocal manner--especially given that the conference was held with the two masterful equivocators: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr.    

Conversely, being flanked by Bettman and Fehr suggests that Fasel has enough clout to speak with certainty about the future of women's hockey. (Picture and press conference source


Fasel, in an obvious reference to my blog (just kidding), noted that it took men's hockey decades to level the playing field. He specifically pointed out that it took more than 82 years for Switzerland to beat Team Canada after the first game between the two nations ended in a 33-0 defeat for the Swiss. The IOC decided to be patient with men's hockey then just as it will remain patient with women's hockey now. 

And, based on this SnOwlympiad, I doubt that it will take 82 years before the Swiss beat Canada. It might even happen sooner than later if Schelling is back in the Swiss crease during the 2018 games in PyeongChang.

In establishing that the "IOC is willing to give us the time" to develop women's hockey, Fasel was careful not to fault the competitors themselves for the event's growing pains. Indeed, he commended the female athletes, saying that their "participation has not been a question" as the sport has struggled over the years. 

These remarks suggests that women's hockey has a complete buy-in from the players; it just needs individual countries and their fans to invest time, money, and pride in their female athletes. 

As I mentioned in the second tweet pasted above, North American audiences can help out these athletes by clamouring for more CWHL coverage from national broadcasters. Otherwise, the women's game will virtually recede back into obscurity for the next four years.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Gretzky's Sister, or, A Rink of One's Own

Dear IOC,

Cancel luge, and then we can talk seriously about the future of women's hockey at the Winter Olympics.

Yours sincerely,

Fans

Preamble: add female athletes to the list of endangered species

If the IOC wants to cut events that are not competitive, women's hockey should not be its top priority.

Yes, gold medals in women's hockey have been monopolized by Canada and the USA ever since the event debuted in Nagano (1998), but that streak of dominance seems brief when compared to other events. While the North American rivals will likely meet again during the gold-medal game in Sochi, there are already signs that such dominance will not last forever.

This temporary dominance doesn't mean that the IOC should discontinue a sport that is gaining momentum despite minor disadvantages such as meager media coverage and awful start times whenever the competitions take place outside of North America. Oh, and don't forget the centuries-old stereotypes that encourage sports enthusiasts to scoff at female athletes.

In response, the CWHL's Calgary Inferno and Toronto Furies have chosen nicknames that dare onlookers to mock women's hockey.

So if the IOC wants to cut lopsided events, where should it start?

1. Take luge off the tracks

Since the introduction of luge events to the winter Olympics in 1964, Italy and East/West/Reunified Germany have monopolized gold medals in the the men's singles competition. The only exception occurred in 1968 when Austria won gold in Grenoble.

In the women's singles, Italy and the Germanys have dominated the golden podium in every Olympiad except for 1980 (USSR) and 1992 (Austria, again). Moreover, the Germans have won gold AND silver in every women's luge since 1998 (when women's hockey was introduced) except for the Vancouver games: Austria won silver in 2010, so Germany had to settle for gold and bronze. Furthermore, in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics, Germans won all three medals in women's singles. And yet, even after back-to-back medal sweeps, the IOC is singling out women's hockey for extermination.

In doubles luge, every gold medal from 1964-present has been won by Italy or the Germanys except on three occasions in which the top honours went to...wait for it...Austria.

So have other countries upped their game for Sochi? Well, here's a little pic that google had to offer when I googled "olympic luge" yesterday:

Luge is broken.

All right, so luge should definitely be guillotined ahead of women's hockey. Now, how about men's basketball? 

2. Courting controversy

When men's basketball premiered in the 1936 Olympics, the Americans began a gold-medal streak that lasted 7 straight Olympiads. I haven't found any articles to support this notion, but I don't think that anyone was clamouring for this sport to be removed from the Summer games. Those who did would probably have found themselves blacklisted as Bolsheviks by Joseph McCarthy.

After an upset at the 1988 games in Seoul, the Americans rebounded and won gold at every summer Olympiad from 1992-2012 except for 2004, when they had to settle for bronze. As you would imagine, people found it refreshing to see Argentina take the USA's place in the golden spotlight in Athens.

Just kidding--the failure to clinch gold was received like an anti-Miracle on Ice (the "hell on hardwood" perhaps?). The squad chosen for the 2008 Olympics was dubbed the "Redeem Team" in recognition of their duty to, as one reporter wrote, to "right the wrongs of Athens". That writer does acknowledge that Team USA' tribulations in 2004 stemmed in part from a rise in the quality of international competition, but then he reverts to the notion that nature intended Americans to dominate basketball by referring to the USA's loss at the Athenian Olympiad as "their Greek embarrassment." 

Had it not been for the team's hubris, the American men's basketball team would have an uninterrupted gold-medal streak spanning the 1992-2012 Olympics and beyond--just as God intended.

Meanwhile, American and Canadian dominance in women's hockey is supposedly offensive to the very principles of the Olympic games as a celebration of competition. 

3. Why wasn't men's hockey iced earlier?

Lastly, how about men's hockey? Back in the good ole days (i.e. the Cold War), the USSR held a stranglehold on hockey that was only interrupted twice between 1964-1992. The first time occurred when an upstart American team defeated the Soviets at the 1980 games in Lake Placid. However, that upset shouldn't really count because it was devised by divine intervention.

The second and final interruption occurred when the USSR collapsed following their last gold medal in 1988. However, the Soviet zombie known as the Unified Team nevertheless won gold at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville. So, over a period of 10 Olympic games (1956-1992), the USSR/Unified Team won gold eight times while the USA clinched gold twice. 

Why, then,  are we complaining that the USA and Canadians have been dominating women's hockey for the past four SnOwlympiads? Perhaps the North American rivals need a compelling narrative, such as the persistent threat of thermonuclear war, in order to better demonstrate the true spirit of the Olympics. 

Conclusion: Let them play!

So why is dominance in women's hockey a problem? Ken Campbell of The Hockey News addressed this question in 2010 when former IOC President Jacques Rogge threatened to cut women's hockey. Campbell suggests that, while other countries are improving, the Canadians and Americans are so far ahead of the competition, that the rest of the world might not ever catch up to the North American women's game.

Yep, by the time the other teams learn to fore and aft-check effectively, North American women will be playing on hover-skates and firing pucks hand-cannons like Samus from Metroid.

Pictured: An artists's rendering of Marie-Philip Poulin taking part in a pre-game warm up during the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Seriously though, there are limits to player development. The Canadians and Americans can't reinvent women's hockey every four years, so other teams just need to learn from the dominant teams and be patient. If Canada's recent struggles at the World Juniors have taught us anything, it's that other countries can and probably will catch up to the North American athletes if we encourage women's hockey to grow...preferably without threats to drop the event for dubious reasons.  

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Gold War: Team Canada and Team USA Offer the Most Heated Contest on Ice

If you woke up this morning to hear gusts of wind battering your windowpanes, you probably experienced the "butterfly effect" following Kevin Dineen's huge sigh of relief from the other side of the world, where Team Canada beat Team USA for the first time since Dineen took over the coaching position.  

After stepping in behind the bench of the women's national team, Canada has experienced a four-game losing streak against its North American nemesis. All that changed Wednesday morning with a spectacular 3-2 win.

It's a shame that the game was played so early in the morning because it's hard to imagine that we'll see a more entertaining hockey game in the 2014 Olympics. After vigilantly calling bodychecks during Canada's first two games in Sochi, the refs gave their whistles a breather today, allowing the North American rivals to play a physical contest. Both teams forechecked ferociously in a grudge match with as much intensity and animosity as any NHL rivalry. Indeed, aside from the ponytails, there was little difference between this preliminary match and an NHL playoff.

If Canada and the USA meet again in the tournament with a medal on the line, the bellicose play will make the Stanley Cup Final look like a strawberry social in comparison.

While the victory was sweet, the manner of winning it was precarious. Canada relied on another three-goal third period after going scoreless in the first 40 minutes of the match. In Monday's game against Finland, Canada similarly failed to score in the first 40 minutes before finally netting three in the third period. These late-game rallies are thrilling for fans, but the team needs to find some offence early or else the opposition will find a way to neutralize Canada for the final 20 minutes.  

After a scoreless first period, Team USA got on the board first when Hilary Knight, Team USA's nefarious killjoy, tipped a point shot past Charlene Laponté on the powerplay. If you're unfamiliar with Knight, she's known for scoring pivotal goals and crushing the hopes and dreams of Canadians fans.

Pictured: Knight (pictured here next to Jessie Vetter following a 5-1 victory over Team Canada) is also known for treating passengers as ottomans and flagrantly obstructing emergency exits. Yep, she's evil like that. (source

Luckily for Team Canada, the Olympics bring out the best in Hayley Wickenheiser, who not only notched a goal and an assist today but also spoiled the game for Team USA's go-to spoiler. Aside from the tip-in goal, Wickenheiser et al. did an excellent job limiting Knight's presence on the score sheet.  

Both goalies were also standouts today, forcing both teams to rely on powerplays for the first two goals of the game. Jessie Vetter entrenched herself as she withstood waves of Canadian offence. Vetter might have stolen the game had her teammates not assisted on Canada's two even-strength goals.  

After an initial shot from Wickenheiser was blocked, Alex Carpenter slipped the rebound through a sprawling Vetter and into the net. Carpenter would have been thrilled with her effort if she didn't play on Vetter's team. While trying to tuck the puck under her goaltender, Carpenter unintentionally scored an own-goal that would be credited to Wickenheiser.  

The 2-1 goal caused a heated dispute on the ice and behind the American bench as Team USA clamoured for the goal to be disallowed as the puck may have crossed the goal line after the whistle had been blown. With the way Vetter had been playing, it seemed inevitable that the only even-strength goal against Team USA would cause controversy. When the referee upheld the goal, the Americans did everything but dump tea onto the ice in protest.

Following the game, Knight vented her frustration by claiming that she and her teammates heard the whistle and stopped playing just before the puck crossed the line. Even if that was the case, Knight should probably ut the controversial goal was not the game winner, so Knight might have offered an account of the game that didn't suggest that the team quit as soon as a call went in their disfavour.

The game-winning-goal was similarly assisted by sloppy play on the part of Team USA. After offering Canada a number of tantalizing giveaways, Meaghan Agosta beat Vetter on a breakaway on her second breakaway of the game. The two-goal game was a fitting way for Agosta to celebrate her 27th birthday today--especially since she had previously celebrated turning 19 by scoring a hat trick in the 2006 Olympics. Apparently birthdays bring out the best in Agosta.


Luckily for the opposition, the ratio of birthdays to unbirthdays for Agosta this year is 1: 364. 

The Americans similarly capitalized on deficiencies in Team Canada's play when they narrowed Canada's lead with just over a minute left in the third period. Psychiatrists can thank the Americans for the 3-2 tally as the mere prospect of playing OT against the Americans in the Olympics brings back traumatic memories of 2010 for Canadians fans.

The last-minute goal was the product of failing to protect the crease sufficiently. After allowing American skaters to crash the net, Laponté found herself spun around in the crease. Anne Schleper quickly fired the puck into the net before Laponté could get back into position. 

These sorts of mistakes, however, are not signs that either team is inherently flawed. Rather, they are both so evenly matched and tenaciously skilled that the game became a zero-sum war in which one team's every mistake benefited the opposition.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Hockeyitis: The NHL wages germ warfare on commuter airlines

Did you get sick on a recent flight? Were you flying to or from a city that hosts an NHL team? That might not be a mere coincidence: your time glued to the toilet seat may actually have been a brush (well, more precisely, a heave or bowel movement) with fame!

NHL clubs are trying to preserve the health of their rosters lately by sending sick players to road trips separately. Unless the teams have procured flying sickbays, it's safe to assume that the unwell players are traveling with the rest of us--regaling us with sports anecdotes all while passing their undesirable germs on to us. Wtf, NHL, is hockey really a business that's too big to fail sniffle?


To protect myself from hockey players, I always wear one of these get ups whenever I fly, go to NHL games, or do anything that involves breathing near ice.

Apparently, what you call first-class seating is what professional hockey clubs call a quarantine. We North Americans live in a strange class system wherein our wealthiest non-athletes have to put up with a millionaire's germs because his fellow millionaires don't want him partaking in their highfalutin air.

Yes, professional hockey players are much more cautious nowadays than they were back when Georges Vezina tried to play through his advanced case of tuberculosis. (Seriously)

The latest instance of quarantining players with commoners occurred yesterday as news broke that James van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs was too ill to travel with his teammates to Sunshine for Tuesday's match against the Florida Panthers. JVR is officially suffering from the flu, but I suspect that he's harbouring some cinematic plague:


Now wouldn't you feel better if you knew that JVR-germs weren't wafting through your cabin's recycled air?  
I have long suspected--and I can't substantiate this hypothesis yet--but I have a hunch that "the flu" is code for something far more menacing that frequently afflicts hockey players. Perhaps there's some type of locker-room dysentery that the NHL is keeping us in the dark about.

Dysentery has a long history of crashing parties. For instance, it likely claimed the lives of the Edward, the Black Prince; Henry V of England, and Sir Francis Drake--all of whom contracted the disease while fighting on respective battlefields (or battle-waters, in Drake's case). Dysentery's penchant for spreading through military camps makes it a likely culprit for the locker-room epidemics that we've seen in the current NHL season, in which the flu has broken out intermittently since October.

My suspicions of unreported, hockey-specific ailments were heightened recently when the Leafs' Peter Holland was afflicted with "lace bite." Although it sounds like getting burned by a courtesan, this condition apparently refers to a common foot injury that stems from the tongue in a new pair of skates being too stiff or the laces being bound too tightly.

"Lace bite" is painful but its effects are temporary, unlike "hockey mouth" a common condition caused by exposure to sticks, fists, and Zack Kassian.

I suspect that NHL locker rooms are also becoming hotbeds for infections, viruses, and other nasty things that no one wants to talk about. JVR's flu might actually be an incidence of "tape lung," "skate staph," or "Rage virus" (which Brian Burke would probably refer to as "truculent typhoid" or "typhus with testosterone").

So, when you find yourself seated next to a professional hockey player, you can rest assured that you've just contracted something that his team doesn't want circulating in the locker room. The best case scenario is that you've come into contact with the flu. The worst case is that you've been exposed to "the flu."

And so, while your favourite team's playoff hopes remain in the ICU, you'll be worrying that the euphemism that you've contracted will develop into the harbinger of an apocalyptic plague.


Tagline: "Humankind just got eliminated from the playoffs."